Syria Today – Assad Welcomed in Arab League, Confirming Resurgence of Authoritarian Rule

Your daily brief of the English-speaking press on Syria.

After being isolated for over a decade, Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, made a significant return to the Arab League. He attended the bloc’s 32nd summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, marking his first participation since Syria’s suspension in 2011 due to the outbreak of war. Despite protests in rebel-held areas of northern Syria against his presence, al-Assad viewed the summit as a momentous opportunity to address regional crises. In his speech, he expressed hopes for a new phase of Arab solidarity, emphasizing peace, development, and prosperity rather than conflict and devastation. The reintegration of Syria into the League highlights the resurgence of authoritarian rule in the Middle East, which has become more pronounced over a decade after the Arab Spring uprisings. This development raises questions about the progress made towards democratic governance and the protection of human rights, as the Arab Spring originally sought to address these issues.

G7 leaders reject normalization with Syria, support the anti-ISIS mission

In a statement, the G7 leaders meeting in Japan called out normalization with the Syrian government but reaffirmed their commitment to a political solution as well as their support for anti-ISIS operations in northeast Syria.

North Press reported that the leaders of the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, and Japan (as well as the European Union) met in Hiroshima between May 19-21. Syria is mentioned among other global issues included in a concluding communiqué.

“We reaffirm that the international community should only consider normalization and reconstruction assistance once there is authentic and enduring progress towards a political solution,” the statement reads.

“We remain firmly committed to an inclusive, UN-facilitated political process consistent with UNSC Res. 2254,” the statement read.

It furthermore endorsed the work of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and demanded unfettered access of humanitarian aid to all Syrians, including UN cross-border aid.

Direct UN cross-border aid to northeast Syria was suspended by Russian and Chinese vetoes in 2020. In opposition-held northwest Syria, a special mechanism has to be renewed every six months. Russia has repeatedly threatened to cut off this aid access.

“We remain committed to the enduring defeat of ISIS,” the G7 statement added, “including durable solutions for ISIS detainees and displaced persons remaining in Northeast Syria.”

‘Betrayed and let down’: Syrians react as Assad is welcomed back to Arab fold

Adela Suliman and Missy Ryan wrote a piece for The Washington Post, in which they blame the Arab governments for letting down the Syrian people.

The two writers monitored reactions and feedback from Syrian rights activists.

Razan Saffour, a British Syrian human rights activist, expressed deep disappointment in the international community, stating that they had completely failed the Syrian people. Her assessment came as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was welcomed back to the Arab League after an 11-year suspension, a symbolic triumph for a leader accused of heinous crimes during the ongoing civil war. Many Syrians affected by the conflict felt betrayed and believed that their suffering had been forgotten and erased. While some Arab countries had previously supported rebel factions, Assad has regained control with the help of Iran-backed militias and Russian air power, leading to a normalization of diplomatic relations.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, while acknowledging the years of struggle in Syria, expressed hope that Assad’s reintegration would bring stability to the region. The Arab League’s embrace of Assad highlighted a divergence with the United States, which maintained its policy of isolation and pressure against him. The international community’s focus on other crises, such as the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has left many Syrians feeling neglected.

Protests against Assad’s participation in the Arab League summit erupted within Syria, with opposition-held cities witnessing demonstrations expressing outrage. While Assad’s reintegration may provide some economic benefits to the struggling nation, critics argued that normalizing relations with him was a betrayal to the victims and their families. Despite the positive response from pro-Assad social media users, the Biden administration and European allies remained committed to isolating and pressuring Assad due to the immense loss of life and displacement caused by the war.

While Assad’s return to the international stage may have economic implications for Syria, it also sends a dangerous message to other authoritarian leaders. Syrian activists, including Razan Saffour, expressed skepticism about any significant improvement in the political situation and highlighted the need for self-reliance and resilience among Syrians. The lasting memories of loved ones and the strength drawn from shared experiences were sources of inspiration for some, but the overall sentiment among those interviewed was one of betrayal and disappointment in the international community’s response to the Syrian conflict.

Erdogan Slams Opposition Over Remarks on Withdrawing from Syria

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized the opposition for saying it would withdraw Turkish forces from Syria if they won the elections.

Speaking at an electoral event in Istanbul, Erdogan was quoted by Asharq Al-Awsat as saying that the opposition wants to withdraw from the security corridors that Türkiye set up to protect its borders from terrorist organizations.

Kilicdaroglu announced restoring relations with Syria if he came to power, and pledged to send back millions of Syrian refugees to their homeland within two years. He also made remarks on the presence of Turkish forces in Syria, Libya, and other regions.

Erdogan added in an interview with CNN on Friday that he had a good relationship with the Assad family, and the two families used to meet in the past, but certain developments unfolded, which led to the deterioration of the relationship.

“We have more than 900 kilometres of border, and there is a constant terror threat from those borders on our country,” he said. “The only reason we have a military presence on the border is the fight against terrorism. That’s the sole reason.”

“(Through) my friendship with President Putin, we thought we could open a door, specifically in our fight against terrorism in the northern part of Syria, which requires close cooperation and solidarity,” he said.

Erdogan has dismissed opposition calls for the comprehensive deportation of refugees and said he will “encourage” around a million refugees to return to Syria instead.

He said Türkiye was building infrastructure and homes in Turkish-controlled parts of the war-torn country to facilitate their repatriation.

Israel Says Will Continue to Attack Syria Despite Return to Arab League

Syria’s return to the Arab League will not affect Israel’s action inside Syrian territory, according to an Israeli official.

The official confirmed in a statement that was quoted by Asharq al-Awsat that his government had conveyed clear messages to the international community, stating that Syria’s legitimacy would not prevent Tel Aviv from attacking it and would not affect Israel’s actions.

The Israeli security establishment expressed concerns about Syria’s readmission into the Arab League after 12 years of suspension.

Ynet Hebrew website reported that Defense Minister Yoav Gallant met with senior security officials last week to assess Syria’s return to the Arab League.

Sources said Israel is waiting to assess the situation, but its policy would not change.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad participated in the 32nd Arab summit held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday after the Arab League announced the participation of Syrian delegations in its meetings and affiliated bodies and organizations as of May 7.

Last Thursday, Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets over the Quneitra area, warning Syrian army commanders to cooperate with Hezbollah.

The flyers warned the Syrian regime against cooperating with the Iranian-backed group, saying that regime forces procure security passes at checkpoints for Hezbollah elements threatening Israel.

Israel also called on the regime to change its policy of tolerating Hezbollah’s presence in the region.

Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad welcomed back into the fold at the Arab League summit

Andrew England in London, Raya Jalabi in Beirut and Samer Al-Atrush in Jeddah wrote a lengthy analysis for The Financial Times.

The analysis said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad attended an Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia, signalling a shift in regional priorities as Arab states seek to normalize relations with Damascus. The move comes over a decade after the Arab League suspended Syria following the violent crackdown on a popular uprising that led to a civil war. Arab states hope to engage Assad in addressing issues that have had regional implications, such as the refugee crisis and the illicit drugs trade.

Under the diplomatic efforts led by Saudi Arabia, Arab states aim to implement a scheme to encourage Syrian refugees to return home and persuade Western powers to ease sanctions on Syria. This plan was adopted at a meeting of foreign ministers from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. Shortly thereafter, Arab states agreed to readmit Syria into the Arab League after a 12-year suspension.

The piece went on to say that Assad, embraced by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, stated at the summit that the region had a historic opportunity to reorder affairs with minimal foreign interference. The diplomats involved hope that the refugee scheme, if successful, will facilitate the return of more Syrians and encourage the US and Europe to ease sanctions, enabling reconstruction in the war-torn country.

However, there are concerns among human rights advocates regarding the scheme, as it relies on security guarantees from Damascus and may lead to forced returns. Around 6 million Syrians fled the country during the civil war, and a similar number were internally displaced. The re-engagement with the Assad regime has raised worries that premature organized returns could set a dangerous precedent, especially considering previous allegations of abuses and ongoing human rights violations.

The Assad regime’s behaviour remains a point of skepticism among aid workers and diplomats. While some Arab diplomats see the refugee scheme as a way to test Assad’s seriousness and willingness to make reforms, others doubt the regime’s sincerity. Economic aid has not been discussed yet, as progress on the refugee issue is considered a prerequisite.

The majority of Syrian refugees are in Turkey, with hundreds of thousands in Jordan and Lebanon, where they are seen as a burden on weak economies. Concerns about the cross-border trafficking of the highly addictive amphetamine captagon have also prompted regional powers to engage with Assad in hopes of curbing the trade. Arab diplomats have discussed their plans with Western powers but will not lobby for easing sanctions until they witness progress.

The Arab-led effort, in coordination with the UN and international stakeholders, will be assessed before further actions are taken. The return of refugees remains a sensitive issue due to security concerns and the precarious situation within Syria, including widespread destruction and a collapsed economy.

Syria’s Return to Arab Fold Shows Resurgence of Authoritarian Rule

The Wall Street Journal published a story this weekend in which it says that Syria’s reintegration into the Arab World is a sign of authoritarian rule’s resurgence.

Syria’s reintegration into the Arab world reflects the resurgence of authoritarian rule in the Middle East, more than a decade after the Arab Spring uprisings. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad attended an Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia, marking a significant reversal of his country’s suspension from the league in 2011 due to his government’s violent crackdown on the uprising, according to WSJ.

Many Arab states, following the lead of the West, had distanced themselves from Damascus in response to the uprising against Assad. However, Assad’s government remains isolated due to its record of human rights abuses, including the use of chemical weapons and attacks on civilians. Millions of Syrians have been displaced, and tens of thousands have been subjected to torture.

The Arab League’s change in stance, facilitated by Saudi Arabia, coincides with a shift in Washington’s influence in the region as it redirects its attention to China and Russia. US allies and partners in the Middle East are increasingly turning to China and Russia for geopolitical matters, and China has brokered diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Syria was mediated by Russia.

China and Russia are important trade partners for many countries in the Middle East and do not exert the same human rights pressure as the West. Arab states are realizing that the US’s interests in the region could be challenged, leading to a reevaluation of alliances and regional dynamics.

More than a decade after the Arab Spring, countries that initially saw changes in leadership are now governed by authoritarian leaders or remain fragmented by post-2011 conflicts, such as Egypt, Yemen, and Libya. Even Tunisia, which emerged from the Arab Spring with a stable democracy, is now facing threats to its democratic institutions. Opposition figures argue that President Kais Saied has consolidated power and detained political opponents.

Assad’s regime waged a brutal war, with the support of Russia and Iran, to crush the rebellion and regain control over much of Syria. While large parts of the country remain outside his control, foreign governments supporting the rebellion have dwindled. Saudi Arabia, which initially backed the Syrian rebels, has shifted its focus to bringing Assad back into the Arab diplomatic fold to counter Iran’s influence and promote trade.

Critics, including Arab officials, Western diplomats, human rights activists, and political analysts, argue that Assad has made little effort to address the longstanding issues in Syria. He has resisted political solutions to the civil war and has taken minimal steps to alleviate the humanitarian crisis and curb illicit drug trafficking and radicalized fighters.

Arab officials believe that isolating Syria through international policies has been counterproductive, strengthening Iran’s influence in the region. They emphasize the urgent need to increase the Arab role in Syria and expedite efforts to find a political solution to the crisis, which would also help combat terrorism, extremism, and drug trafficking.

The US and its Western allies have made it clear that they will not lift international sanctions on Damascus unless Assad engages in power-sharing discussions and holds free and fair elections. The US House of Representatives is set to vote on a bipartisan bill next week that would expand restrictions on individuals involved in normalizing relations with the Assad regime

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